{Empty title} | The Nation

I have been closely reading the interchange in The Nation sparked by Tess Elliott's piece, and was glad to see Carl Pope's call for a more civil tone--and his inclusion of the policy and law aspects of the debate in addition to the scientific sphere. Both are enormously important, but on both "sides," decisions or opinions must be made with as many facts on the table as possible. As a historian who has studied the creation and evolution of Point Reyes National Seashore for ten years, I would like to contribute a few more facts to the discussion, arguing that the potential wilderness status of Drakes Estero does not require the oyster operation to cease at a specific date.

Pope's letter discusses three possible pathways for dealing with existing uses within areas to be designated as wilderness: leave them outside the boundary, choose a designation other than wilderness, or permit the use to continue for a limited time. However, the bill designating portions of Point Reyes as potential wilderness was actually the first time this unusual designation was ever used by Congress, and its precise definition remains murky. The Senate Report on the final bill in 1976 in fact called the use of this category into question: "The [Senate] Committee's retention of the potential wilderness provisions contained in the House passed measure should not be construed to be an advocacy of this classification by the Committee. Although the Committee understands the Department's rationale for this legislative classification, the Committee reserves the right to question this procedure at future wilderness hearings."

Nor was there any articulation of a political compromise allowing the oyster farm to continue until its existing reservation of right runs out in 2012. Throughout the legislative history of the Point Reyes wilderness area, there is extensive discussion of the areas that should or should not be included in the wilderness designation, and wherever there is mention of the oyster farm, the tone is unambiguous: It should be allowed to continue operation. There is no hedging of "until its reservation run out," nor any setting of a specific deadline--the language is simple and clear.

In the hearings and environmental documents leading up to the 1976 legislation, the National Park Service argued, on numerous occasions, that the oyster operation was incompatible with wilderness designation, and should be excluded from the boundary --in one instance citing its standing lease with the State of California for the shellbeds "with presumed renewal indefinitely." Somewhat ironically, it was the Sierra Club, Carl Pope's own organization, who argued back that the oyster farm should be included as a prior non-conforming use--with no mention of a deadline for ceasing operations. This position was later backed up in hearings by several of the legislative sponsors, including Representative John Burton.

As for insisting that all non-conforming uses in potential wilderness areas are expected to cease once their original lease runs out, this is not a consistent or established policy. As evidence, I point to the High Sierra camps, located in an area designated potential wilderness within Yosemite National Park, one of the most iconic of the system. The Yosemite wilderness was discussed at many of the same hearings as Point Reyes, back in 1976, and the Park Service made the same argument to exclude them from the wilderness boundary, as they were commercial operations, compatible with the mission of the national parks but with "no present plans to discontinue these uses." Yet they were included, as potential wilderness, in Congress's designation of 1984, with no language giving them special status or continuation--exactly the way the oyster farm went unmentioned in the Point Reyes legislation. These camps are unquestionably a commercial outfit operating within potential wilderness, yet their concessioners contract has been renewed by the Park Service since the wilderness legislation passed, and I have yet to see the Sierra Club take a position calling for their removal.

There is no formal definition of potential wilderness by Congress as requiring non-conforming uses to cease within any set timeframe or process. As recently as 2007, the National Park Service's associate director for visitor and resource protections, Karen Taylor-Goodrich, testified before Congress regarding the inclusion of several check dams within a potential wilderness designation in Sequoia-Kings Canyon: "We recommend that the dams be designated as potential wilderness additions rather than be set aside as exclusions. This would allow Southern California Edison, the operator, to continue its hydroelectric power operation as long as it wants" [emphasis is mine]. "Potential wilderness," when one considers the historical record, was not conceived of as a way to gradually phase out non-conforming uses; it was a way to accommodate them, allow the rest of the area to be managed as wilderness, and simplify the administrative process of declaring those acres to be part of the "full" wilderness if/when the non-conforming uses cease.

In the case of Drakes Estero, it is already managed by the National Seashore as wilderness, with the lone exception of allowing the oyster boats access to their racks. The fact that the estero is routinely cited as one of the most pristine on the Pacific coast, despite the seventy-plus-year presence of a continuously operating oyster farm, suggests that growing oysters is more compatible with wilderness qualities than the Sierra Club is willing to admit.

The Ken Burns program on parks this week has celebrated the words of John Muir as inspiration and encouragement of the national park idea, but perhaps we have listened solely to Muir for too long. Another central voice in the discussion of humans' relationship with the wild is Aldo Leopold, who instead of focusing on wilderness as distant cathedrals, wrote of the importance of re-establishing a personal relationship with wilderness, of finding our compatibility and co-existence with it. Point Reyes has long been ideally suited to be managed as a Leopoldian park, a place where the wild and the pastoral are complementary, not in competition, thriving side by side--and a wild Drakes Estero that also produces sustainable oysters is the perfect centerpiece of such a park.